The Evolving Work Environment in New Zealand: Implications for Occupational Health and Safety - NOHSAC Technical Report 10
7. Impacts of Technology on Work
The impact of information and communication technology on the world of work is widely recognised as being significant, but technological advances in other areas such as the physical and biological sciences have also been important. Understanding the effects of emerging technological changes requires bringing researchers from many disciplinary areas together. Integration of insights from different disciplines is, however, rare.[ii] In perhaps no other field is the effect of these advances as poorly understood as in the field of OHS. Understanding the complex interactions between technological advancement, the changing nature of work and its implications for OHS is beyond the scope of this project. There is, however, a need to give some consideration to the dynamic that technological change is having on work organisation and for existing and emerging OHS risks.
This chapter examines, at the broadest level, the different ways technology is likely to impact on both workers and the organisation of work itself. The chapter will briefly outline the broad emerging areas of concern with regard to OHS and technological advancement with a view to highlighting the issues that will need further research evaluation in the future.
Most of the analysis of how new technology affects the production and distribution of goods and services is confined to an examination of socio-technical systems and the impact of continuous process technologies on work organisation and the labour process. Across the labour market, however, technological innovation has become structurally embedded in the capitalist economy – significantly affecting labour demand. For instance, the IT revolution of the past 20 years could be considered as structurally influential as the industrial revolution of the 18th century. The industrial forces that brought workers together in large factories in the 18th century may be equivalent to the IT forces that drive workers apart in the current times. Debate around these tendencies and counter tendencies is intense. We do not take a position on these matters. Rather, our analysis is informed by an understanding of issues identified in this debate.
The remainder of the chapter is structured as follows: the next section looks at the IT revolution and its impact on work; a brief but suggestive section on biotechnology and nanotechnology follows, after which we report comments from our key informant interviews; the chapter concludes with some suggestions about likely impacts on existing and emerging OHS risks, as well as surveillance needs.
Information technology (IT), in its most basic sense, can be understood as computer-based information systems for the storage and retrieval of data. The impact, then, of IT on white collar workers is apparent. IT has helped to improve productivity by making previously manual tasks (typing, filing, and data and information storage, retrieval and manipulation) highly automated. In addition, technological advancement has brought about global connectivity with developments in telecommunications allowing real-time interaction around the world.
These improvements in IT and productivity have had a significant impact on occupational structure. The demand for professionals, in IT but also in other sectors, has increased virtually at the same rate as technological advancement. Commensurate with this, however, has been a significant decline in clerical workers, as noted earlier in this report. In 1993, the largest occupational group was clerks, while, in 2006, the largest occupational group was professionals (see Table 7.1). For example, in the banking sector, increased reliance on innovative information technology such as internet and telephone banking has reduced the need for front-end, customer service oriented staff whilst increasing the need for account managers and auditors. These occupational shifts have occurred as industrialised countries, such as New Zealand, have developed a more highly-skilled workforce. Commonly referred to as ‘knowledge economies’, these countries are increasingly being defined less by manual work and more by work based on exchanges of information and knowledge.
The knowledge economy, which has been advanced by increased use of IT in the workplace, creates a demand for more skilled labour. Up-skilling the labour force is a priority in New Zealand policy. These labour market changes, however, have had a significant effect on work organisation. Hours of work have increased as job roles have expanded and principles of efficiency and economy have led to workforce reductions. Work intensification has also been affected through extended hours of operation – outside the normal 9<0x2009>am to 5<0x2009>pm that, in white collar industries, has been compounded by the growth in international markets and the need to work across different time zones.
Another impact of the increased use of IT in white collar work is what Towers, Duxbury and Thomas refer to as ‘work-extending technology’. This refers to the way that laptops, PDAs and even mobile phones are facilitating the destruction of barriers between work time and personal time. This concept, in particular, is discussed in greater detail in the section on excessive work hours and in the section on working from home.
March 1993 (000)
March 2006 (000)
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In the blue collar labour market, technological advances have also had significant impact on production processes in manufacturing, mining, construction and agriculture and on the distribution of goods and services in the transport, warehousing and logistics industries. The changing nature of work and its OHS implications have been widely recognised and studied in these areas.
Negative implications have been suggested for two groups of New Zealanders. In rural regions, the cost of initial capital outlays required to keep pace with the technological advancement of competitors has proven restrictive. The OHS implications of this have been noted with regard to increased stress and mental health-related issues, as industries and businesses collapse. The other group significantly affected by new technology are older people without the same technologically-based skill sets as younger workers entering the workforce. Older workers, whose core skill set may have become obsolete as technology has replaced manual skills, also suffer from the same mental health issues that are exacerbated by associated barriers to changing occupations and declining levels of blue collar work.
The decrease in people employed in the agriculture, forestry and fishing industries over the past 15 years is most likely due to increased use of mechanised technology. Increased mechanisation has also led to a decrease in demand for semi-skilled workers. In 1991, 112,300 men and 36,900 women were employed as agriculture and fishery workers. This decreased to 106,200 men and 33,500 women in 2006. However, while it is evident that, with New Zealand’s low unemployment rates, these semi-skilled employees are finding work elsewhere, the adequacy of retraining needs to be considered, particularly with regard to OHS risks, and particularly given the consistent advances in technology in other sectors.